27 February 2017

A Novel That Killed a Novelist?

In Quest of Splendour [Pierre le magnifique]
Roger Lemelin [trans. Harry Lorin Binsse]
Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1955

Roger Lemelin's first three novels were published within five years of each other. Au pied de la pente douce (The Town Below), his 1947 debut, was a bestseller. The following year, Les Plouffes (The Plouffe Family) achieved even greater sales, and then went on to became the country's first hit television series. Lemelin's third, Pierre le magnifique didn't fare so well.

The dust jacket of this lonely printing of the English translation depicts the author in repose. I expect Lemelin was deep in thought, though it is hard not to see him as defeated. Long dead critics thought little of Pierre le magnifique, and weren't all that excited by its translation. The Americans, who had published English-language editions of Lemelin's first two novels, took a pass. It would be three decades before he wrote another novel... and that work, Le crime d'Ovide Plouffe (The Crime of Ovide Plouffe), wasn't very good.

In Quest of Splendour is a very good novel. My greatest quibble has to do with its title, but this is the translator's fault; Pierre le magnifique is much better.

Pierre is Pierre Boisjoly, the nineteen-year-old son of a widowed charwoman. Highly gifted and somewhat handsome, he has benefitted from a good education thanks to the patronage of Father Loupret who sees the makings of a cardinal in Pierre. The young man is certainly on the right path, but on the very day of his graduation from Quebec's Petit Séminaire he's thrown off-course by a brief encounter with another young man.

It's not what you think.

Through that young man – name: Denis Boucher – Pierre meets Fernande, whose features are "exactly those of the girl who for years had slept in the depths of his senses." Such is her beauty that the student has no choice but to abandon all plans for the priesthood. That evening, having informed Father Loupret of his decision, he visits Denis and Fernande in their small bohemian flat. Pierre has his first sip of beer and, lips loosened, lets slip that his mother spotted an envelope stuffed with cash while cleaning the home of Yvon Letellier, his wealthy Petit Séminaire rival. Intent on stealing the money so as to pay for his new friend's education, Denis dashes off to the Letellier's. Pierre sets off to stop him. The pair meet up at the house, struggle, and accidentally knock over Yvon's grandmother. She dies on the spot.

The Globe & Mail, 19 November 1955
No one sees the death as at all suspicious – she was old and frail – but Pierre flees the city just the same. He isn't so much running away from the law, but his future past as a Catholic priest. The young man ends up in a lumber camp, where he is exposed to Marxism. Pierre sides with the camp's owner, only to find that he has cast his lot with a violent, unstable drunk who hires prostitutes for the pleasure of beating them. Upon his return to Quebec City, he finds that liberal Father Lippé, the teacher he held above all others, has been placed in a mental institution. The priest's mistake was to enrol in independent sociology classes taught by European schooled Father Martel (read: Georges-Henri Lévesque).

Forget the old lady's death, it's here in the second of the novel's three parts that things become really interesting. Lemelin's The Town Below surprised this reader, born in the early years of the Quiet Revolution, with its mockery of the Catholic Church. In Quest of Splendour goes much farther. Here the Church is depicted as corrupt, punitive and insincere, working with the provincial government to suppress dissent and education. Quebec's Attorney General, who happens to be Yvon's uncle, plays the Communists, enlisting them to smear while targeting moderate liberals for acts of violence. Of course, in real life – our world – the position of Attorney General was not held by Yvon's uncle but by Premier Maurice Duplessis.

Students of history will recognize the risk.

In Quest of Splendour
is as ambitious as it is bold; a brave work by a man who had everything to lose in its writing. Is it really so surprising that reviews in Duplessis' Quebec were lacklustre?

Lemelin's least known novel, it is his best.

About the author:

(cliquez pour agrandir)
Object: Two hundred and eighty-eight dense pages bound in dull grey boards with burgundy print. Sadly, the jacket illustration is uncredited. I purchased my copy twenty-eight years ago in Montreal. Price: two dollars.

Access: Pierre le magnifique is in print from Stanké. Price: $13.95. The scarcity of the original, published in 1952 by the Institut littéraire du Québec, is a reflection of its failure in the marketplace.

Harry Lorin Binsse's translation also fared poorly. The McClelland & Stewart was followed the next year by a British edition published by Arthur Baker. As far as I can determine, neither enjoyed more than one a single printing.

Very Good copies of the Canadian edition are being sold online for as little as US$6.50; the British, which shares the same jacket, will set you back just a touch more. At 875 rupees and change, India's Gyan Books offers a print on demand version. Pay no heed, I am certain they're breaking copyright.

An Ontario bookseller offers signed copies of both the Institut littéraire du Québec and McClelland & Stewart editions at US$35 each. Trust me, they're worth it.

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15 February 2017

A Small Town's Biggest Novelist

The newest issue of Canadian Notes & Queries arrived last week, containing all sorts of goodness wrapped in a cover by Seth. My contribution concerns Helen Duncan, the best selling novelist of St Marys, Ontario, our adopted hometown. I'm confident in claiming that Mrs Duncan enjoyed more sales than all others, if only because she also holds the distinction of being the only St Marys novelist to have landed a publishing contract. Her books were issued by Simon & Pierre, were reviewed in Books in Canada and, decades later, can be found in academic libraries as far from this town as Australia's Flinders University.

Mrs Duncan managed to get three novels into print, but the only one I discuss in any length is her 1982 debut, The Treehouse. It's a bildungsroman, a roman à clef, and heavily autobiographical. The family at the novel's centre is modelled on Duncan's family. The house in which they live – that of the title – is modelled on the second of her three childhood homes. It still stands today at the corner of Jones and Peel.

I spoil nothing in revealing that the fictional family later moves into this Queen Anne on Church Street South:

As the title suggests, houses play significant roles in this novel; one might argue that they are better drawn than the characters they shelter. The most interesting is that belonging to the needy widow down the street. The model for this house also stands, at the corner of Jones and King, and is for sale as I write.

A perfect gift for the obsessive Helen Duncan fan.

This issue's "What's Old" features two selections from Regina's Spafford Books, and three of my own: Three Novels of the Early 1960s by Ross Macdonald (New York: Library of America, 2016), Collected Millar: The Master at Her Zenith (New York: Syndicate, 2016) and The Complete Poems of George Whalley (Montreal: McGill-Queen's UP, 2016).

Also featured are contributions by:
Marianne Apostolides
Max Beerbohm
Leone Brander
Jim Christy
Jason Dickson
Deborah Dundas
Andre Forget
Stephen Fowler
Pascal Girard
Emily Keeler
Richard Kemick
David Mason
Dilia Narduzzi
Sarah Neville
Suzannah Showler
Bardia Sinaee
Bruce Whiteman
Did I mention that there's a new story by K.D. Miller? Well, there is!

Suscriptions to CNQ – always a bargain – can be purchased here through the magazine's website.

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13 February 2017

So... not a bodice ripper

Unlacing Lady Thea
Louise Allen
Toronto: Harlequin, 2014

10 February 2017

The Beautiful, Very Desirable Stephen Leacock (and the bloody severed head of Orpheus)

Behind the Beyond was dropped by New Canadian Library during the post-Ross purge. Anyone familiar with the series today knows better than to expect its return. Fortunately, used copies are both inexpensive and plentiful.

The ugliest NCL edition can be bought online for as little as two Yankee bucks, but at nine dollars and up what you really want is the 1913 Bell & Cockburn.

I won't pretend to have seen every edition of every Leacock, but feel confident in holding high this particular one as the most beautiful Leacock of all time. Credit goes to English illustrator A.H. Fish (1890-1964), whose century-old Vogue and Vanity Fair cover illustrations have become a bit of a cash cow for Condé Nast. Premium gilsee prints begin at US$125.

Miss Fish provided decorations, dust jacket and no less than seventeen plates for Behind the Beyond. Here are three favourites:

Those afflicted with an aversion to old books – I once knew such a person – will take heart that Behind the Beyond is available from a volt of print on demand vultures. The discriminating buyer might what to consider that "published" by Dodo Press, if only because it soars above the rest as the most competent. The cover of its "Illustrated Edition" – they have no other – features an illustration I've not been able to identify. It is not by Miss Fish, though her other illustrations feature.

Print on demand publisher PAP offers this strange looking thing...

... but I recommend the one offered by Library of Alexandria (of California).

Gustave Moreau's Orpheus seems a curious choice, does it not?

I'd like to say it's a nod to "Homer and Humbug", but that would be giving Library of Alexandria too much credit. Besides, Orpheus is never mentioned in Homer.

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08 February 2017

Ezra Levant's Great White Hope

Available as of this morning, my Walrus review of Ezra Levant's spanking new ebook
Trumping Trudeau: How Donald Trump Will Change Canada Even If Justin Trudeau Doesn't Know It Yet.

You can read it – gratis – through this link.

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06 February 2017

Professor Leacock Sets the Stage

Behind the Beyond
     and Other Contributions to Human Knowledge
Stephen Leacock
Toronto: Bell & Cockburn, 1913

Early Leacock is the best Leacock, and this one is very early indeed. His fourth book of humour in as many years, it falls between his finest, Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town and Arcadian Adventures of the Idle Rich, and establishes a format repeated in many of the collections that followed: a relatively long opening piece, followed by gatherings of shorter writings.

The long piece here, "Behind the Beyond", takes the form of a running commentary on an evening at the theatre. The drama performed – untitled – is of Leacock's own imagination: Sir John Trevor, MP, is a man with much responsibility, troubled by serious matters in the House of Commons. A quarter-century his junior, his wife is never so concerned and, as soon becomes apparent, has found escape in the arms of Sir John's ineffectual secretary, young Jack Harding:
"Do you remember, Jack, when first you came, in Italy, that night, at Amalfi, when we sat on the piazza of the palazzo?"
     She is looking rapturously into his face.
     Mr. Harding says that he does.
     "And that day at Fiesole among the orange trees, and at Pisa and the Capello de Terisa and the Mona Lisa. Oh, Jack, take me away from all this; take me to the Riviera among the contadini, where we can stand together with my head on your shoulder just as we did in the Duomo at Milano, or on the piaggia at Verona. Take me to Corfu, to the Cappo Santo, to Civita Vecchia, to Para Noia, anywhere —"
     Mr. Harding, smothered with her kisses, says, "My dearest, I will, I will."
     Any man in the audience would do as much. They'd take her to Honolulu.
Leacock's is a "problem play". The term is no longer used, but the situation at the heart of it all will be familiar to today's reader. These eyes have seen something of it in Edith Wharton, Henry James and select episodes of The Edge of Night from my childhood.

The Edge of Night is no more, and humour ages poorly. Not everything in Behind the Beyond works today. "With the Photographer", is not so much funny as it is an interesting glimpse at a time gone by:
The photographer rolled a machine into the middle of the room and crawled into it from behind.
     He was only in a second – just time enough for one look at me – and then he was out again, tearing at the cotton sheet and the window panes with a hooked stick, apparently frantic for light and air.
     Then he crawled back into the machine again and drew a little black cloth over himself. This time he was very quiet in there. I knew that he was praying and I kept still.
     When the photographer came out at last, he looked very grave and shook his head.
     "The face is quite wrong," he said.
     "I know," I answered quietly, "I have always known it."
That said, the five pieces collected under the title "Parisian Pastimes" seem barely to have aged at all. Here's Leacock on the French child:
The child, I was saying, wears about two hundred dollars worth of visible clothing upon it; and I believe that if you were to take it up by its ten-dollar slipper and hold it upside down, you would see about fifty dollars more. The French child has been converted into an elaborately dressed doll. It is altogether a thing of show, an appendage of its fashionably dressed mother, with frock and parasol to match. It is no longer a child, but a living toy or plaything.
     Even on these terms the child is not a success. It has a rival who is rapidly beating it off the ground. This is the Parisian dog. As an implement of fashion, as a set-off to the fair sex, as the recipient of ecstatic kisses and ravishing hugs, the Parisian dog can give the child forty points in a hundred and win out. It can dress better, look more intelligent, behave better, bark better – in fact, the child is simply not in it.
The final piece, "Homer and Humbug – An Academic Suggestion", should be considered one of Leacock's greatest hits. I don't often laugh when reading – Fran Leibowitz, who I think is funnier than just about anyone, leaves me silent – but I did at this:
An ancient friend of mine, a clergyman, tells me that in Hesiod he finds a peculiar grace that he doesn't find elsewhere. He's a liar. That's all. Another man, in politics and in the legislature, tells me that every night before going to bed he reads over a page or two of Thucydides to keep his mind fresh. Either he never goes to bed or he's a liar. Doubly so: no one could read Greek at that frantic rate: and anyway his mind isn't fresh. How could it be? he's in the legislature. I don't object to this man talking freely of the classics, but he ought to keep it for the voters. My own opinion is that before he goes to bed he takes whisky: why call it Thucydides?
Why indeed?

I first read Behind the Beyond on the plane that carried me from my Montreal home to a new one in Vancouver. This was in the mid-nineties. I didn't read Leacock again until late last spring, when I picked up The Hohenzollerns in America. I resolved then and there to never let another year go by without Leacock. I'm sure I'll read him again before the year is up. These dark, dark days I appreciate him more than ever.

Fran Leibowitz, too.

Preferred over Hesiod and Thucydides.

Note: After writing this piece, I read Silver Donald Cameron's Introduction to my old New Canadian Library edition only to find that he'd made a couple of the very same observations.

What can I say?

Great minds think alike.

Fools seldom differ.

Trivia: In 1932, Gowans and Gray published a stage adaptation of "Behind the Beyond" by V.C. Clinton-Braddeley. I include an image of same, along this link to the booksellers, in the hope that some librarian somewhere will consider purchase. As it stands, just three Canadian libraries hold copies; Library and Archives Canada does not.

Leacock biographer Ralph L. Currie informs that the BBC broadcast a televised performance in 1937!

Object: A very attractive hardcover with crimson boards and gold embossing. The print is large. Though the text doesn't amount to 200 pages, thick paper provides bulk, as do the decorations and sixteen plates featuring illustrations by A.H. Fish. My jacketless copy, a first Canadian edition, was purchased in 1989 at the annual McGill Book Fair, a hop, skip and a jump away from the university's Leacock Building. Price: $2.00.

It looks to have once been a gift purchased from Quebec City bookseller H.F. Kimball.

Access: Our public libraries fail entirely. How can that be? As might be expected, the academic libraries come through... but not that of McGill University. How can that be?

Behind the Beyond did well in its day with editions in England and the United States enjoying several printings. In Canada, S.B. Gundy took over after Bell & Cockburn went bankrupt. The book joined the New Canadian Library in 1969, only to fall in the post-Ross purge of the 'eighties. It has been out of print ever since. Happily, it can be read here - gratis - courtesy of the Internet archive.

People preferring paper – I'm one – will be happy to learn that the used copies listed online are cheap.  Prices range from US$2.00 (a fourth printing of the NCL edition) to US$350 (a 1917 American reprint inscribed by the author). The latter is preferred, of course, but who has that kind of money?

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